For his new film, “Bridge of Spies,” the director Steven Spielberg returned to what for him has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration: American history. His hero this time isn’t a totemic national figure, as in his 2012 film, “Lincoln,” but instead is someone whose name is barely known: James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. A Bronx-born lawyer who defended a vilified Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), during the Cold War’s peak, Mr. Donovan later negotiated to swap Mr. Abel for both the American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the Soviet Union, and an American graduate student who had been detained in East Berlin.
Mr. Spielberg — an engaged, thoughtful and kindly presence — sat down in TriBeCa recently to talk about how the post-9/11 world informs his new film, what Hollywood could be doing for women and minorities and why he feels he was born decades too late. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. Did you see commonalities with “Bridge of Spies” and “Lincoln” in terms of the story lines?
A.Both men are highly principled, and both men basically have a mission. Lincoln’s mission was going to change the way we look at each other, and Donovan’s mission was to basically bring somebody home. In a sense, Lincoln and Donovan are uncompromising figures in history, one completely obscure and the other almost ineffably famous.
Donovan was especially resolute in the idea that this man deserves every defense. Is there nostalgia here to a kind of belief and principle? I was thinking of prisoners in Guantánamo. Was that in your mind when you were making the film?
So many things were in my mind in the contemporary world. Drone missions. Guantánamo Bay. Cyberhacking, because cyberhacking is a form of spying. At the very beginning of technological spycraft in the late ’50s, with the U-2 overflights, our fear was that the Sputnik was a spy satellite, which it turned out of course not to be, and there was also great suspicion and fear of nuclear holocaust. I grew up in that era. The stakes were very, very high. And yet today, there is much more dread and fear of who’s looking over our shoulders. There was a specific enemy, the Soviet Union, in the 1950s and ’60s. Today we don’t know our enemy. The enemy doesn’t have a specific face.
For you, is there solace looking at heroic people in history? Is it a comfort compared with what’s happening in the world now?
Here’s the thing. It’s a little harder today. Donovan could work in tremendous secrecy at a time when there was no social media. Today it’d be a lot harder to find a man that would stand up for his principles and suffer the slings and arrows of the haters on social media. Donovan had it bad: They shot a bullet through the window of his apartment in the late ’50s. Imagine the amount of hurt that would have been brought to bear on Donovan’s family had this entire incident occurred in this day and age.
How did you find out about this story?
A British playwright named Matt Charman presented me with this incredible story about the spy swap. I’m a big fan of the spy genre. Even though this film was more of an intellectual spy drama, a little more about the art of negotiation and conversation, there was still spycraft that really got me excited. I’m a huge fan of “The Quiller Memorandum,” “The Ipcress File,” The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.” Even “Our Man Flint,” “Dr. No,” and “FromRussia With Love.”
I’m going to jump out to some general queries. In terms of the film industry, do you feel it’s in a healthy state?
The film business has always been competitive with television, and in the early age of television, some of the greatest writers worked in television. Paddy Chayefsky, Stirling Silliphant, Rod Serling. Then television became very formulaic. But something has happened in the last seven or eight years. Some of the greatest writing today is for television. Look at series like “Transparent,” “Bloodline,” “Wolf Hall” and “Downton Abbey.” A wonderful series I’m hooked on, “Homeland.”
Television has allowed the audience to take bigger risks on where they’re spending money when they go to the movies. Because if they can get something like that in a movie theater, where that particular story is only playing in a movie theater, it might get more people out to the movies.
So the filmmakers can take more of a risk?
Yes, the studios can take more of a risk and allow filmmakers to tell stories that are self-contained and don’t even promise a sequel. I think television has helped the independent cinema and that the independent cinema has inspired long-form television. This is the second golden age of television, absolutely.
Women’s point of view has been a huge topic lately. Do you feel someone in your position has a responsibility to cultivate young women filmmakers?
I’ve cultivated women in film ever since I decided to make my secretary my producer and form my company, Amblin. I’m much more comfortable in the company of women. I’m talking about women in creative capacities, not administrative. The first movie I ever greenlit for DreamWorks was a film called “The Peacemaker,” and Mimi Leder directed it. Women are very much in executive positions all over the film industry today — the head of Universal, head of Fox 2000. The former head of Sony. What I don’t understand is the lack of diversity and color in the executive ranks of motion-picture companies, and that is something I think we have to look carefully at and have to ask why.
And also director positions. Why do you think that is?
I think there needs to be an infusion of more women directing and more men and women of color directing.
How do we do that?
We do that by continuing to look at movies that everybody is making whether they’re on YouTube or Vine. You have to just be open to it, and you have to search for it. You have to go out to see where the talent is and basically cultivate the talent.
You’ve clarified your comments about superhero movies, which you’ve said will have a finite life span compared with westerns. Are there superhero movies you like?
I wasn’t giving the thumbs down to the genre, ’cause I go to all the movies. My favorite of all the superhero movies are the “Iron Man” movies. I love Tim Burton’s Batman films and then — jump-cut way into the future — everything Chris Nolan has touched in Batman, because of the darkness, of what would motivate a character like that, a very rich character, to do the kind of public service work he does.
And “Iron Man” because …
There’s a lot of Joseph Campbell in the “Iron Man” movies. We all want to fly. And we know we can’t fly without wings, except in our dreams. I used to dream about flying in a bodysuit, and when “Iron Man” came along, I went: “They wrote this for me. This is my wish fulfillment.”
With “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” you looked out beyond the world. Now you’re mining history.
I always said to myself if I ever achieve a success where I can decide what to do independently, I wanted to tell stories that are meaningful to me about people that did great things.
I also have an imagination — if it sits around too long, I get afraid it’s going to become a little jaded, so I fluctuate between stories based on true events and movies that are much more a product of my overactive imagination. Or at least Roald Dahl’s, which is my next movie, “Big Friendly Giant.” With Mark Rylance playing the big friendly giant.
I didn’t know it was Mark Rylance as Abel; he was so deep in the character.
Thanks to “Twelfth Night” and “Richard III” [on Broadway], I was able to get a big dose of Mark Rylance a couple of years ago. He was my first choice. Tom [Hanks] has played American figureheads in the past, and he’s very representative of our core values of what we believe to be great American leadership. This was a special assignment for Tom, because he’s badass in this story. He was dogged in his pursuit of justice.
You seem to draw great performances out of people.
Working with Daniel Day-Lewis brought me up many, many notches. I just dogged Daniel Day-Lewis, and after 10 years he finally said yes to play Abraham Lincoln. It really raised my game. I really believe I did some of my best work on “Lincoln,” principally because of this one actor.
What is it that he does that caused these new light bulbs to go off?
You can’t describe it. I try to go back in time to figure out how did Howard Hawks get that performance out of Montgomery Clift and John Wayne in “Red River”?
I really feel I was well suited to working 70 years ago. I would have been a good workhorse, under contract and assigned stories, and I would have thrived.
I spend more of my time looking at movies from 70, 60 years ago than I do watching movies that are made now. Clint Eastwood and I are very close friends, and we talk about this all the time. He wishes he could go back and experience what it would have been like to have Darryl Zanuck or Harry Cohn or Louis B. Mayer go through a go-between and hand you your assignment, then you read it and say: “You know something? I hate it, but I can fix it.”